“We are now in a constitutional crisis”, said Jerry Nadler on Wednesday afternoon, after the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena for Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report and the underlying evidence.
Nadler was stating the obvious, and he knew it. In remarks to reporters following the 24-16 vote, he effectively acknowledged that America has been mired in a slow-motion constitutional crisis for quite a while. He also underscored the extent to which Donald Trump has very nearly succeeded in consolidating power, a phrase which should be anathema in what was once the world’s foremost democracy.
“There can be no higher stakes than this attempt to arrogate all power to the executive branch away from Congress, and more importantly, from the American people”, Nadler said. Here’s the clip:
Nadler insisted that Congress “will not flinch” in the face of the country’s descent into authoritarian governance, but the truth is, it’s far too late.
As we detailed the day after Barr whitewashed the special counsel report, Trump has effectively established an autocracy, and he’s done it by eroding the public’s sensibilities and numbing GOP lawmakers to words and acts that just three years ago, would have been grounds for immediate removal from office.
Trump routinely tramples on press freedom, incites physical violence against his political rivals (Ilhan Omar being the most poignant example), impedes the independence of the central bank, suggests anyone who opposes him is traitorous and obstructs efforts to hold his administration accountable in full view of the public. He often resorts to outright lies when championing his agenda and his reflexive relationship with Fox News has led to the establishment of what amounts to State television.
There is no ambiguity here and, to date, lawmakers have done nothing to put the brakes on. Those with the power to remove him from office have either quit in disgust or else morphed into sycophants. And it wouldn’t matter anyway, because thanks to Trump’s successful effort to turn even the sanest members of his base into raving conspiracy theorists, his supporters wholeheartedly believe that anyone who isn’t named Sarah Sanders, Sean Hannity or Lindsey Graham is a member of the “deep state”.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump asserted executive privilege over the unredacted Mueller report and the underlying documents, which only serves to further water down Nadler’s contempt gambit. Nancy Pelosi will presumably push the contempt resolution in the full House but it won’t matter. The subpoena isn’t enforceable. Legal proceedings against Barr would likely drag on for years, and, ultimately, he is the nation’s top law enforcement official, so who exactly is going to rule against him? Theoretically, the House could send the sergeant-at-arms to arrest Barr and haul him in for a trial before Congress, but that’s so far-fetched as to be laughable.
Nadler’s committee warned that if this is allowed to go on, it would mean that Trump “remains insulated from legal consequences and sits above the law”.
That’s unequivocally true. But, again, it’s not at all clear what can be done.
If the answer is “nothing”, it means that the whole concept of checks and balances was nothing more than a facade. As has been the case in countless societies over the course of history, it turns out that the system rested almost entirely on amorphous aphorisms and high-minded ideals. All it took to topple it was an executive brazen enough to call bullsh*t.
There is no “good” option for Democrats. If they attempt to impeach Trump, he’ll use the proceedings to rally the base ahead of 2020 – he’ll characterize it as a last gasp attempt to nullify the 2016 election result. And oh, the irony. Trump will claim that the only way for Americans to take back democracy is to reelect him in order to show the establishment (the “swamp”) that power resides in “the people”. In reality, they’ll be voting to legitimize rule by authoritarian strongman.
Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins called the vote to hold Barr in contempt a “cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step”.
But what’s more “cynical, mean-spirited and irresponsible” than helping Trump pass off a real-time shift to authoritarianism as a full-throated defense of democracy to a base that doesn’t know any better?